Attitudes to land reform: research

This report outlines the main findings from research exploring public attitudes to land reform.

Executive summary

Background and methods

This report presents the main findings from a research study exploring the public's attitudes to land reform. The study was conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government by Ipsos MORI Scotland in collaboration with Scotland's Rural College (SRUC). Fieldwork took place between Spring and Autumn 2020.

The aim of this research was to investigate the public's attitudes to land reform and community engagement in decisions about land use and provide a nuanced understanding of what policy options are likely to meet the public's priorities.

A mixed-method approach was adopted, comprising: an evidence review, eight interviews with expert stakeholders, a mixed mode (online and telephone) survey of 1,501 respondents aged 16 and over, and a deliberative stage which involved 10 online workshops and 12 interviews.

Prior perceptions about the benefits of Scotland's land and current challenges

When thinking about 'land in Scotland', participants tended to think first about rural land that has not been built on.Nevertheless, awareness of many current challenges was evident, and the following issues were raised unprompted: concentrated land ownership, absentee landlords, housing developments encroaching on the green belt, derelict land, land banking[1] and disputes over access rights.

In the survey, broadly similar numbers of people viewed each of the following as the biggest challenge for the future of Scotland's land: climate change; building on greenspace; inequality in land ownership; and housing shortages.

Awareness and initial reactions to the Scottish Government's land reform agenda

There were mixed levels of prior awareness of the term 'land reform' and what it might involve – but it was generally viewed positively.

When asked more specifically about awareness of the Scottish Government's plans for land reform, awareness was low: 73% of survey respondents said they knew 'not very much' or 'nothing at all' about it. It was thought that 'land reform' was not a particularly good term to describe this policy area. It was seen as vague and unclear but there was no consensus on a better term.

When presented with an overview of the Scottish Government's aims for land reform and the main elements of the 2003 and 2016 Land Reform (Scotland) Acts, participants were, overall, very supportive of the aims.

Diversification of land ownership

Most people said they supported the Scottish Government's plans to diversify land ownership. In the deliberative discussions, there was general support for a greater number of landowners (though less importance was placed on widening the types of owners). However, others felt it mattered less who owned the land, and more how they treated it.

Survey respondents were more aware of Scottish Government policy supporting communities to buy land and buildings than they were of its plans for land reform more generally.

There were a range of views on the Community Right to Buy (CRtB). Those who were supportive tended to think that those who lived in an area were best placed to determine the way the land is used and would be more likely to have the economic and social wellbeing of the local community at heart.

There was a feeling that urban examples, where communities bought existing buildings or relatively small amounts of unused land, benefitted a greater number of people, for a much lower cost, than rural examples of relatively large land purchases where populations were smaller.

A concern was expressed that communities might lack the necessary skills and resources to take over and run the assets.

Vacant and Derelict Land

A considerable number of respondents (44%) are concerned about vacant or derelict land in their own area. Even among those who had little vacant or derelict land near them, there were concerns about the detrimental effect on wellbeing for those who did.

There was a concern that it can be in the interests of landowners to keep land derelict and there was support for tighter regulations to limit this.

There was low awareness of the Scottish Government's aim to reduce the amount of vacant and derelict land and to give local communities the chance to take control of the land.

Statutory Access Rights

56% of survey respondents indicated they were confident about their rights to access different types of land on foot or bicycle. However, the deliberative research suggests that some of those who may not be 'confident' about their rights have a good idea about the main principles of responsible access.

There was strong support for current access rights once explained. Concerns were expressed, however, about people dropping litter, lighting fires irresponsibly, dog fouling and disturbing animals (and a view that these negative effects were exacerbated as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has increased amount of people visiting rural land).

Overall, respondents support current access rights but think there should be more education and clarity around the respective responsibilities of the public and landowners – and what to do in the event of a dispute

Views on climate change and protecting wildlife

When asked specifically about how important it is to consider the protection of wildlife and climate change when making decisions about land use, there were high levels of concern about both (96% thought protecting wildlife should be an important factor and 89% thought climate change should be an important factor).

However, this level of concern was not so apparent in the deliberative research. This may be because they are seen as global, rather than local, concerns. This suggests that, in engaging people about land use decisions in their area, people may need to be prompted to consider these aspects.

Engagement in decision-making

Only 13% of survey respondents indicated that they had previously been involved in decision making around land use. Those in the most deprived areas were half as likely as others to have been involved – though they were just as interested in being involved in the future.

There was enthusiastic support in principle for the Scottish Government's aim of promoting greater community involvement in decision making around land use. A lack of awareness of how to get involved – as opposed to a lack of motivation – was the dominant explanation given by participants for not having been involved.

Around two thirds indicated they would be interested in being more involved in the future. It was agreed that there needed to be a multi-pronged approach to the engagement activities including online methods, meetings, and 'knocking on doors'.

Conclusions and implications

There is low awareness of the Scottish Government's land reform agenda as a whole (though slightly more awareness of some specific aspects such as CRtB and access rights). However, once explained to participants, there is considerable support for the overall aims and for specific policies on diversification of land ownership, vacant and derelict land, access rights and community involvement in decision-making. Concerns tended to relate to elements of implementation rather than the policies themselves. These included:

  • a view that, while current access rights probably strike the right balance, more should be done to educate the public about their responsibilities, there should be more clarity about landowners' responsibilities in respect of allowing access, and there should be guidance on what to do in the event of a dispute
  • a concern that communities may lack the resources and expertise to manage assets, and may be susceptible to volunteer fatigue in the longer term and therefore that support should be provided
  • a concern about the relative cost-benefits of large-scale buyouts (including as land values rise). This was related by some directly to value for money in terms of the number of people likely to benefit. It also highlights the issue of rising land values as a future challenge not just in economic but also social terms

There is an evident appetite among the participants for greater involvement in decisions about land use. Initiatives to encourage this should tap into the pride that is felt in Scotland's land, but also the concerns about vacant and derelict land, about the lack of community facilities and about land not being used to benefit local communities.

The term 'land reform' is perceived as somewhat unclear and is associated with undeveloped, rural land. It is not connected with tangible issues and initiatives that effect people. This has implications for how land reform is positioned. A greater emphasis on the urban elements and buildings in rural towns and villages, may help engage more of the public and help them see the relevance of land reform to their own lives. Examples of successful community buy-outs (particularly urban examples) and repurposing of vacant and derelict land should be publicised.

Early involvement in decisions about how land should be used should also be encouraged. Additionally, decision makers need to consider how the structures and processes involved in making decisions about land use may act as barriers to meaningful community engagement. The findings demonstrate that, although people in the most deprived areas are less likely to have been involved in decisions, they show a similar level of interest in being involved in the future. They are also more likely to be affected by vacant and derelict land in their area. This suggests a need to prioritise and support engagement activities in these areas.



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